Return to DANFS IndexImage of an anchorReturn to Naval Historical Center homepage
flag banner
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships banner
DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

Yorktown

 

A town in Virginia where the climactic battle of the American Revolution was fought in the autumn of 1781.

 

II

 

(Gunboat No. 1: dp. 1,910; l. 244'5"; b. 36'0"; dr. 14'0" (mean) ; s. 16.14 k.; cpl. 191; a. 6 6", 4 3-pdrs., 4 1-pdrs., 2 30-cal. mg.; cl. Yorktown)

 

The second Yorktown (Gunboat No. 1)—a steel-hulled, twin-screw gunboat protected by a then armored deck—was laid down on 14 May 1887 at Philadelphia, Pa., by the William Cramp and Sons' shipyard; launched on 28 April 1888; sponsored by Miss Mary Cameron, the daughter of United States Senator Don Cameron; and commissioned at the League Island (Philadelphia) Navy Yard on 23 April 1889, Comdr. French E. Chadwick in command.

 

Yorktown conducted final sea trials before being assigned to the "Squadron of Evolution" in the autumn of 1889. Yorktown operated with that unit as it developed tactical maneuvers for use by the new steel-hulled naval vessels then coming into service in the United States Navy.

 

After this duty, Yorktown departed the east coast of the United States on 7 December 1889, bound for European waters; stopped briefly at Fayal in the Azores; and arrived at Lisbon, Portugal, two days before Christmas. The ship subsequently cruised the Mediterranean into the early spring of the following year, calling at ports in Spain, Morocco, France, Italy, Greece, and Malta. Following her return to the United States on 17 June 1890, the warship entered drydock at the New York Navy Yard on 1 July for repairs that lasted until 8 August. Upon the completion of these alterations, Yorktown took part in the ceremonies marking the embarkation of the remains of the noted inventor, John Ericsson—of Monitor fame—for transportation back to his native Sweden for burial.

 

Yorktown next again operated in the Squadron of Evolution—sometimes referred to as the "White Squadron"—off the eastern seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico into the summer of 1891. Under Acting Rear Admiral John G. Walker, the squadron normally cruised in the Gulf of Mexico from January to April and off the east coast from May to October. While in the gulf, the ships called at Galveston, Tex., New Orleans, La., and Pensacola, Fla., and carried out target practice in Tampa Bay. Later, the squadron conducted small arms practice at Yorktown, Va., after arriving at Hampton Roads. In July 1891, the squadron carried out exercises and maneuvers in connection with the naval militias of New York and Massachusetts during which it added torpedo attacks upon the Fleet to the usual target practices. In addition, it conducted drills and landing exercises—the precursors of the amphibious landing operations of World War II over five decades later.

 

The Secretary of the Navy's report for the fiscal year 1891 noted with pride that "useful experience" had been gained by the Squadron of Evolution in the training of commanding, navigating, and watch officers in skillfully and safely maneuvering vessels in formation and in restricted waters. In addition, engineers were trained in regulating and maintaining economical coal consumption.

 

On 8 October 1891, Yorktown, under the command of Comdr. Robley D. Evans, departed New York to join the Pacific Squadron. The gunboat put in to Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands, to "coal ship" on 14 October. While the ship was engaged in this grimy, dusty duty, an incident occurred on the other side of the South American continent that would directly affect Yorktown's future employment. A revolution in Chile had caused deep division in the country. The victors charged the United States with favoritism when it sheltered some of the losing side's leaders in the American consulate at Valparaiso. A mob of Chileans, wielding knives and clubs and throwing rocks, set upon a liberty party from the cruiser Baltimore. In the ensuing riot, two bluejackets were killed and 18 wounded. Thirty-six American sailors were arrested by the local authorities and incarcerated in Chilean jails. War fever ran high in both Chile and the United States.

 

After getting underway on 17 October, Yorktown made few stops en route to the troubled Chilean seaport and weathered fierce gales in transiting the Strait of Magellan. In the days before rapid communication had shrunk distances and had allowed quick transmission of orders and news, the passage of time was critical. War between the United States and Chile could have broken out at any time during Yorktown's hurried voyage 'round the Horn.

 

The gunboat eventually arrived at Valparaiso on 30 November. Less than two weeks later, Baltimore— her presence now no longer advisable—departed, leaving American interests in the hands of Comdr. Evans and Yorktown. Over the ensuing weeks, Chile and the United States teetered on the brink of war; but cooler heads prevailed. Locally, Evans' patience was "dangerously tested," but it held in spite of various provocations by the Chileans. One inflammatory incident occurred when Chilean torpedo boats bore down on Evans' ship, turning their helms hard over at the last possible instant to avoid a collision. On another occasion, a group of sullen locals threw rocks at Evans and his gig as it lay at the foot of a jetty.

 

After a month of "showing the flag," Yorktown embarked refugees from the American, Spanish, and Italian legations in mid-January 1892. She got underway on the 19th and arrived at Callao, Peru, on the 25th. While Yorktown lay anchored there, tension between the United States and Chile relaxed and the crisis abated. Yorktown may have looked "none too potent" at Valparaiso, but her visit-—as Evans' biographer Edwin A. Folk later wrote, ". . . sufficed to make the natvies realize that she flew a battleship-size flag and was commanded by an officer who knew how to defend it." Yorktown had proved her mettle in a struggle of nerves in which one misstep could cause a war. The Chilean government made amends, provided gold for the families of the slain American bluejackets, and restored the American minister, who had been declared persona non grata during the incident.

 

Yorktown stood out of Callao on 4 March, steamed northward via San Diego and San Francisco, and eventually arrived at the Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, Calif. The gunboat subsequently underwent repairs there until late in the following month. Having weathered one diplomatic storm and international incident, Comdr. Evans and his trim white-and-buff-painted command soon set sail on another mission that, if handled wrongly, could have caused ill-feeling with the British.

 

That spring, Yorktown—along with two other naval vessels and a trio of revenue cutters—headed toward Arctic waters on 27 April to protect the great herds of seals in the Bering Sea from vicious poachers. Traveling along the west coast of the United States, the gunboat and her crew "braced," in Evans' words, "at the prospect of doing something." As at Valparaiso, Evans faced the possibility of becoming involved in an international incident arising from possible confrontations with Canadian sealers. Operating under the protection of the British crown, the latter had taken particularly heavy catches. Many American vessels put to sea under the British flag in an attempt to evade prosecution by their own government. Fortunately for Evans and unfortunately for the law-breakers, the British agreed to help put an end to the heedless slaughter of seals and decided upon joint action with the United States in prosecuting the poachers.

 

About 110 schooners, large and small, made up the sealing fleet. They were "armed" with double-barrelled shotguns for killing the animals and Winchester rifles for dealing with any humans who attempted to interfere with their brutal, but lucrative, trade. The fact that the great majority of seals killed had been female —still with young in many cases—almost doubled the toll of slain seals. As Evans noted: "the slaughter in the North Pacific was fearful."

 

Arriving at Port Townsend, Wash., on 30 April, Yorktown put to sea on 13 May, arriving at Iliuliuk, Unalaska, one week later. Coaling there, the gunboat skirted the ice floes near the seal rookeries at Pribilof Island, reconnoitering the vicinity for sealers. Assisted by a revenue cutter, Yorktown guarded the passes to the Bering Sea. The crews of the patrolling American ships lacked fresh provisions but carried on in spite of the hardships imposed by both diet and climate. Fresh fish, however, proved abundant. Codfish was the staple with an occasional gourmet treat of salmon.

 

Besides the patrols made during this deployment in northwestern waters, Yorktown conducted routine operations such as target practices. Among the officers assigned to the ship at that time was Lt. Bradley Fiske, a bright and creative young officer who had invented and constructed a practical telescopic gunsight.

 

Fiske's sight had been tested in Baltimore and had favorably impressed that ship's officers—including her commander, Capt. W. S. Schley. Evans, however, had not taken a liking to Fiske's newfangled gadget but nevertheless consented to allow a second test on board Yorktown (the first one had failed miserably, much to the inventor's chagrin). On the afternoon of 22 September 1892, during scheduled target practice, Fiske's invention worked as designed and elicited begrudging praise from Evans. As Fiske himself later wrote in the Naval Institute Proceedings, modern naval gunnery had its birth not in the British Navy but in the American— off Unalaska on 22 September 1892, in Yorktown.

 

This event went largely unnoticed by the world at large, and the gunboat continued her unsung but important task of protecting the seals in Alaskan waters. She continued this thankless task until 21 September when she departed Unalaska for the Mare Island Navy Yard. From 11 to 24 October, the ship underwent repairs there before proceeding on to the east coast via Cape Horn. Yorktown eventually arrived at Norfolk, Va., on 24 February 1893.

 

After repairs at the New York Navy Yard from 25 April to 26 July, Yorktown retraced her route south and sailed again around Cape Horn into the Pacific. She then moved north to resume patrolling the Bering Sea. She protected seal rookeries into 1894 before returning to Mare Island for repairs which lasted into mid-September.

 

On 24 September 1894, Yorktown sailed for the western Pacific and duty on the Asiatic Station. Sailing via Honolulu, Hawaii, she reached Yokohama, Japan, on 8 December 1894 and spent the next three years touching at the principal ports-of-call along the coasts of China and Japan, "showing the flag" in the Far East. She departed Yokohama early in the autumn of 1897 and made port at Mare Island on 18 November 1897. Subsequently laid up at Mare Island and decommissioned on 8 December, the gunboat remained inactive there through the Spanish-American War in 1898.

 

Recommissioned on 17 November 1898, Comdr. Charles S. Sperry in command, Yorktown sailed again for the Far East on 7 January 1899. Rumors of German machinations in Samoa lengthened Yorktown's stay at Hawaii from a few days to a few weeks; but, when the anticipated trouble failed to materialize, Yorktown resumed her voyage to the Philippine Islands. She arrived at Cavite Navy Yard, near Manila, on 23 February.

 

There, Yorktown was assigned the task of keeping a seaborne lookout for gun-runners who were thought to be supplying guns and ammunition to the "Insurrectos," Filipinos who were fighting for independence. Initial Filipino-American cooperation had been replaced by open warfare when what the former regarded as promises of independence in return for assistance against the Spanish had turned to apparent overlord-ship by the United States.

 

At one point, rumors flew concerning possible German gun-running activities; and Yorktown patrolled off the entrance to Subic Bay and from thence to Lingayen to keep a lookout for the "filibusters." She continued coastal patrol work over the next three years, cooperating with the Army, transporting and convoying troops and patrolling wide areas of often badly charted waters. Upon occasion, Yorktown served as "mother ship" to smaller gunboats, providing officers and men to man those patrol craft. Among the junior officers who served in Yorktown at this time were future Admirals (then ensigns) William H. Standley and Harry E. Yarnell, and the future naval historian and archivist, Dudley W. Knox.

 

Yorktown stood in to Baler Bay, on the west coast of Luzon, on 11 April 1899, on a mission to relieve a dwindling but brave Spanish garrison that had been under siege by Insurrectos for nine months. Lt. James C. Gillmore and a party of sailors in the ship's whale-boat provided a decoy, ostensibly taking soundings of a nearby river. Meanwhile, Ensign Standley and an enlisted man landed further up the coast to reconnoiter. The next day, Gillmore and his boat crew drifted into a trap, running aground too far from the river's mouth and out of sight of Yorktown. Filipino guerillas, hidden in the jungle-covered banks, raked the boat with a murderous fusillade of rifle fire. Two American sailors were killed; two were mortally wounded; and the remainder, including Gillmore, were slightly wounded. The survivors were taken prisoner and endured months of privation until finally freed by Army troops. Ensign Standley completed his mission and, together with the enlisted signalman, made it back to the ship.

 

In the spring of 1900, the situation in China worsened until it culminated in the famed "Boxer Rebellion." Some Chinese Imperial troops, supporting the "Society of Righteous Harmonious Fists" (the "Boxers") besieged the foreign legations at Peking and at Tientsin. An international relief force was sent to relieve the siege; Yorktown was withdrawn from her patrol duties in the northern Philippines to provide assistance to the operations off the coast of North China. She departed Manila on 3 April 1900, bound for China; and, after she reached the mainland, her landing force served ashore at Taku. In June of 1900, she assisted Oregon (Battleship No. 3) back off a reef near that Chinese port.

 

The gunboat departed Shanghai on 10 September 1900 and reached Cavite on the 17th. In the Philippines, she resumed her cooperation with Army forces, still engaged in pacification operations, and continued these duties for the next two years. In between pacification missions, she performed survey work: at Guam in November 1901 and at Dumanquillas Bay, Philippines, in February 1903. Yorktown departed the Far East in early 1903 and returned to Mare Island on 3 June. Two weeks later, on the 17th, she was decommissioned.

 

Recommissioned at Mare Island on 1 October 1906, Comdr. Richard T. Mulligan in command, Yorktown was fitted out there until 9 November. Underway on that day, she operated off the west coasts of Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua into the following summer, ready to protect American lives and property. After repairs at San Francisco and Mare Island, Yorktown conducted target practice at Magdalena Bay, Mexico, and relieved Albany as station ship at Acapulco. She then cruised with the 2d Squadron of the Pacific Fleet to Magdalena Bay and San Francisco.

 

Over the ensuing months, Yorktown continued her regular local operations; she took part in the reception for the United States Atlantic Fleet—en route to wield President Theodore Roosevelt's "Big Stick" in the Far East—at San Francisco on 1 May, and participated in festivities for the Rose Festival at Portland, Oreg., on the 30th of that month. From June to September, Yorktown conducted seal patrols in Alaskan waters, out of Nome, Unalaska, and Sitka, and between 15 and 19 September, established a site for a wireless station at Valdez, Alaska.

 

After that stint of independent duty, Yorktown sailed south to rejoin the Pacific Fleet, conducting battle practices between 19 November and 1 December at Magdalena Bay. She later joined the armored cruisers West Virginia and Colorado and the tender Glacier at Acajutla, Salvador, before sailing fo-Corinto, Nicaragua, in March of 1909 to protect American interests there.

 

After more target practices at Magdalena Bay, Yorktown was repaired at Mare Island in June and into July before shifting to Seattle, Wash., to participate in festivities for the Seattle Exposition. Later in July, the ship visited Esquimalt, British Columbia, Canada. She subsequently cruised off the Pacific coast and participated in the Portola festival at San Francisco in October.

 

From 13 December 1909 to 27 March 1910, Yorktown operated off Corinto, Nicaragua, with the Nicaraguan Expeditionary Squadron, protecting American interests. She then pursued a schedule of exercises and maneuvers, operating between California and British Columbia through June and July. She returned to a posture of readiness off Corinto and San Juan del Sur between 13 August and 7 September. She then operated off Ecuadorian, Colombian, and Peruvian ports, with the United States Consul General at Large embarked, between 19 September and 16 October before putting into Panama for coal and stores. She subsequently protected American interests at Amapala, Honduras, and the familiar Corinto for most of November and December. She spent Christmas at Corinto before shifting to Amapala, en route to San Francisco and Mare Island.

 

From March to July of 1911, Yorktown cruised off the west coasts of Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras. On 29 May, she rescued the survivors from the foundered steamer Taboga, of Panamanian registry. Another period of repairs and upkeep in the late summer of 1911 proceeded the ship's resuming her "show the flag" duties off the Pacific coasts of South and Central America. She returned to Mare Island in May of 1912, and was decommissioned there for alterations on 15 July.

 

Recommissioned on 1 April 1913, Comdr. George B. Bradshaw in command, Yorktown operated out of San Diego on shakedown into mid-April. She was soon back at Corinto, however, remaining in Nicaragua until 5 June, protecting American interests in that perennially troubled country. After a brief period of operations off the coast, she returned to Corinto on 21 June and remained there for over a month before departing on 31 July to coal at Salina Cruz, Mexico. She moved to Mazatlan on 10 August and there picked up mail, delivering it to the port of Topolobampo, Mexico, on the 11th. Yorktown remained there, protecting American interests, until mid-September.

For the remainder of 1913, Yorktown conducted local operations out of San Diego and San Francisco. In January 1914, though, the gunboat returned to Mexican waters and investigated local conditions at Ensenada between 3 and 6 January before moving, in subsequent months, to a succession of ports: Mazatlan, San Bias, Miramir, Topolobampo, and La Paz to extend protection to American citizens and their interests should Mexican civil unrest warrant armed intervention or a show of force.

 

Following an overhaul at Mare Island from 24 June to 2 September 1914, Yorktown served in Mexican waters again into June 1915. From that point until the entry of the United States into World War I in April1917, Yorktown continued her routine of patrols off Mexican, Nicaraguan, and Honduran ports, investigating local conditions and varying that extension  of diplomacy with repairs at Mare Island and maneuvers out of San Diego.

 

After the United States joined the Allied and Associated Powers, Yorktown operated off the coast of Mexico until August of 1917, when she paused briefly at San Diego. She then cruised off the west coasts of Central and South America into 1918. After a refit at Mare Island, Yorktown, sailed for the east coast on 28 April

 

1918,transiting the Panama Canal en route, and arrived at New York on 20 August. The gunboat escorted a coastal convoy to Halifax, Nova Scotia, soon there after before returning to New York. She performed local coastwise escort duties through the end of World War I. After a period of upkeep at the New York Navy Yard in December, she departed the east coast on 2 January 1919 on her last voyage to California.

 

Arriving at San Diego on 15 February 1919, Yorktown was placed out of commission at Mare Island on 12 June 1919. The veteran steel-hulled gunboat was sold to the Union Hide Co., Oakland, Calif., on 30 September 1921.